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Tips for Grocery Shopping on a Budget

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Grocery ShoppingI often wonder what keeps many from grocery shopping with a budget in mind and then sticking to it. I have actually sat down with a friend before who is trying to save money on her grocery bill. We have literally sat at my kitchen table together, gone over the store ad, planned out our meals, made the list, priced out the items and have gone to the store together. Essentially we had the same list – plus or minus a few things, but still with very similar approximate total prices. A few times during our outing we strayed from each other, but in the end, met at the cash register. Once there, her total bill was double what mine was.

So, what happened in the straying? What was different between the shopping trips? How could we have done all the work together, but ended with such different results?

Here are a few thoughts about grocery shopping on a budget:

  • Have a budget in mind that you can’t stray from. I have sat down with my husband, decided what the lowest realistic budget is for our family to spend, and then I stick to that each week. If you are hesitant about what your budget is, you will buy more than you mean or want to. Simple as that. If you don’t have something to stick to, you won’t. Even if you don’t need to have a super low budget, having a price in mind will help you stick to whatever your monthly goal is.
  • Use cash to make your purchases! This is something we have only recently started and I can already see that it’s really going to keep us accountable in sticking to our budget. After hearing Dave Ramsey talk about how we tend to spend more money when using credit, and even debit, cards (even if we pay it off each month) we’ve started trying to use cash for as much as we can. Having money in an envelop and seeing it disappear with each purchase helps put spending money on groceries into perspective.
  • Stick to buying sale items: Base your meals around those items and/or items that you already have at home.
  • Write a grocery list of exactly what you need – think of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and household items. Also, remember staple items that you normally keep on hand so that you don’t have to run out later in the week when you need something and have run out of it. Taking a general inventory of what you have on hand is very helpful. Don’t forget about what fruits, vegetables, and side items you need for side items for your meals.
  • While at the store, hold yourself accountable. If I purchase items other than what’s on my list I write it on my list first and then cross it off, just like I would any other item. I also ask myself if we really need it or if it’s a treat. If it’s a treat, I may still buy it, but I will have already known that we have some extra money in the budget that week and I see it as a special treat. It’s important to write down the item, as well as the price, and then add that price to your approximate total price. Then you won’t overspend or be surprised at the end.
  • Take time to get to know the prices of items so that you can tally up approximate cost of your list and make adjustments if necessary. There are a few ways you can do this…
    • Write up the usual items that you buy and take that list to the store and write down prices as you go
    • Generally, start being conscious when at the store of the prices of items and what a good sale price is
    • I have a list within my eBook, A Month of Meals, of general prices for the items needed for the meals in the book – use that list to compare prices at the store you regularly shop at so you know your striving to get the lowest price possible
  • General rules for going to the grocery store and sticking to your list:
    • Don’t go to the grocery store hungry
    • Don’t bring kids or a spouse that will detour you from your list
    • If it’s not on the list, don’t buy it
    • Don’t go when you are feeling really rushed. By using a good system of meal planning and planning grocery shopping trips I’ve found my time at the store is minimal, but I still like to go at time when there are fewer people and I’m not in too much of a time crunch.
  • Have fun in the process! Take coffee from home, cross things off your list, make a game out of looking for the cheapest prices…

Being wise with how you grocery shop can save you a lot of money as well as be a lot of fun! Some of the ideas I’ve shared are things we’ve been doing for awhile, while others we are still “perfecting” in our own striving to do grocery shopping on a budget. I’d love to hear tips and ideas that you know about or have done that keep your grocery bills low!

(Photo: ralphbijker)

{ 23 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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23 Responses to “Tips for Grocery Shopping on a Budget”

  1. Money Beagle says:

    I loved the comment about writing down extras and crossing them off, just like a normal item. I do the exact same thing! And it’s actually helped me avoid some purchases, because as I’m writing it down it gives me second thought of ‘do I REALLY need this’?

    Fantastic article!

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Money Beagle. I’m a huge fan of these little tips and tricks that help keep your impulses in check!

  3. aj says:

    “I loved the comment about writing down extras and crossing them off, just like a normal item. I do the exact same thing!”

    Me too! I use an junk mail envelope, put my coupons inside, write my list on the back, and mark off as I go. If I add anything I write it down then mark off. I write the price beside each item and keep a running total to the side (keep my math skills sharp) so that I can refer back to the prices, and to make sure I don’t go over my $$ limit.

    It definitely helps to pay with cash. If I enter the store with just a $20 bill I know that I can’t spend more than that NO MATTER WHAT, so you keep a close eye on what you put in the buggy! (Don’t want to be surprised at the register and have to put something back…how embarassing!)

    I have actually strayed from this over the last month but I am going to get back to it. My Frugal thoughts on this is that I am afraid there will be a really good sale on something that I was unaware of so I need to take advantage of it, stocking up, but therefore exceeding my $ on hand…so I take my Debit card instead. It is too easy to overspend then because I am not watching it as closely.

    I really am going to be more dedicated to getting our food budget down more. January we spent $600 on food for family of 5…I couldn’t believe it! So we had a family discussion about it and the next month we were down to around $455. I would say that we are about $425 for March…I would really like to get it down to $300–$75 a week. That sounds so do-able when you think what you can get for $75 but it is NOT that easy! I have 2 big eaters that just about eat me out of house and home if I don’t stop them!

    We are focusing on not wasting food, making more & more homemade meals instead of boxed/prepared, and are going to grow some veggies (hopefully) this summer.
    That should help get the Grocery budget down a bit.

    Oh yeah, the other thing that throws me off track is not sticking to the menu/planned meals…I have to do better with that also.
    Work with what is on sale, and not let anything go to waste!

    Great post!

  4. sara l says:

    One more for the general rules- Don’t go right before a snow storm/blizzard. My last shopping trip coincided with the day before a blizzard and it was no good.

  5. Stacey says:

    A “cash only” policy has done wonders for our grocery budget, as well. There’s nothing more embarassing than having the cashier take something off your order because you don’t have enough $!

    I like to keep a running total of prices on my list. I’ve found if I round up or down to $.50 it gets me pretty close, and there’s no need to bring a calculator along. Don’t for get that there are taxes on some prepared food items; I always stop shopping when I hit $5 under my target budget.

  6. Rob Carlson says:

    If you don’t use a credit card with rewards to buy your groceries, you are still paying the margin that the supermarket tacks on to pay for all the people who do, and you don’t get anything in return.

  7. I would add that it’s important to plan your trips wisely. Plan to get enough food to last as long as possible without it going bad. You don’t want to make extra trips to the store, because you’ll invariably waste money as well as energy. Going to the store less is better for both the environment and your pocketbook. Planning well = less waste.

  8. One thing that can dramatically cut your food expenses is shopping at an Aldi’s supermarket. This is a no frills grocery store that cuts costs to the bone and passes the savings on the consumer.

    Its estimated that people save 40-50% off on groceries shopping here compared to name brand stores.

  9. Michael Cannon says:

    Aldi Foods prices can’t be beat. Check out their website for store locations near you. We feed our family of 5 from Aldi and Costco with a rare trip to a typical grocery store.

    • AprilRum says:

      AMEN! I did about 98% of my grocery shopping at Aldi for the first time last week and was amazed at how much I was able to get and stay under budget. There products are good, even though it’s hard to believe. I always assumed their food had to be low quality and gross to be so cheap, but it’s not true at all. I read on their website and learned about how they are able to keep their prices low, and I really respect how and why they do things the way they do. I’m excited to do more grocery shopping tomorrow and I trust it will be another success. Two bundles of Dole bannanas each for under 90 cents…how can you beat that? And they were good!

  10. MJ says:

    We don’t use cash, but rather a cash back credit card for most of our purchases. We plan meals for the month, make a list, buy the sale brand, stockpile & use coupons. We never have gone over budget. It’s the frivolous not-on-the-list items that cause one to go over budget, not the method of payment.

  11. I agree that budgeting at the grocery store can be extremely useful but I feel that when it comes down to kroger/giant brand discounted products…there are simply some things that can’t be replaced…example, old el paso taco kit versus knockoff…go with the name brand and spend the extra 80 cents.

  12. Karen says:

    I know not everyone has time or energy for this, but I like to have a ‘power shopping’ trip once in a while. I have 5 stores within 3 miles of my house. I get the sale flyers from all of them, circle what is on sale in each store and shop at all of them. Sometimes I’ll find specials that aren’t in the papers, and I stock up. If I do this once a month, I save a lot, and it makes it worth my time. It takes an entire morning or afternoon to do this.

  13. Matt Fyffe says:

    Building a list of your groceries is crucial. By doing this, I avoid a lot of whim purchases that rank up the bill. To ensure I still get to be creative, I’ll add some spaces on my list for “fun items” which will get crossed off when I add things to my cart that weren’t on my list.

    I like to take my time shopping and look at everything so it’s good to keep my wallet tight!

  14. Patrick says:

    Great article. I agree completely with buying sale items. I don’t get it when people spend so much money on items not on sale, when they are usually on sale every few weeks. Just buy a large quantity if you plan on eating it on a regular basis. I also like the idea of writing out a list. It is so easy to just pick up an item on the spot and think you may need it.

  15. Sheri says:

    WOW I can’t believe I didn’t see “coupon” used anywhere in this article or the comments. That is the single biggest way to save money at the grocery store. I cut our grocery bill from $700 a month to under $150 a month and our house if fully stocked! Using coupons to combine with sales will score you a lot of items for super cheap or free at grocery stores. It does take about an hour of work a week but isn’t one hour of work worth a $100 to $200 a week savings?

    Another big savings tip I didn’t see is to stockpile. When you find something super cheap or free, don’t buy one buy 20, especially if it is something you know your family is going to use. It’s better to buy a bunch when they are dirt cheap than to have to pay full price when you run out!

    There are a ton of blogs out there that do weekly matchups on grocery sales. They do all the work for you. They will match the sales to the available coupons to get the best deals available. If you have never visited this world you should…you will be amazed how much more money you can be saving!!!

    • aurora5us says:

      If you are on a budget weekly or not, there is no way that you can spend the extra money on stockpiling, regardless of the good price. You cannot eat toilet paper that is a good deal.
      That money is already allotted to meat or fruit, etc.
      Some smaller towns do not have coupon specials, such as double days, etc. We do not within 20 miles from my town, and the coupons only save if you have that item on sale that week. I saved about $27 in one trip and still paid $75 without meat or fruit.
      Was it worth it? No, we spent over the budget to have fruit and dairy for the week because of the ‘good deals’ of coupons and sales.
      Not realistic in most small communities to use coupons on name-brand items anyway when store brands are much cheaper even without a coupon.

      • Sheri says:

        I can see your point, small towns offer very few opportunities to use coupons because you don’t have larger stores. I do have to disagree that it can’t help a lot of other people. Yes sometimes store brands are cheaper even with the coupon but every week I do deals on name brand items and get them for pennies rather than dollars.

        For example Knorr pasta sides, we love these and use them all the time, I got a ton of them for $.12 each. They were buy one get one free and I used two coupons to get them dirt cheap. That is the kind of sale I stock up on. I think I bought about 20, now we are set for quite a while and I spent a whole $2.50. Target had a deal a few weeks ago where Sutton & Dodge steaks were abour $4 a pack of 2-4 steaks, there was a $2 off coupon, I bought a ton of steaks for practically nothing. Now we are set for steaks. You don’t break your budget stockpiling you work within your budget.

        By stocking up you don’t need as much when you do go to the store, so you end up savings a lot over a period of time. Of course it does take about 4 months to get to that point, but it is worth it!

        • Kerry says:

          Not to mention coupons are generally on brand name items. I have found, after taking coupons to the store, that comparing the price of the brand name after the coupon and the generic or store brand is usually still cheaper. I know some people are able to do extreme couponing, but for the average person shopping on a budget coupons generally don’t make a lot of sense. I use them ONLY if they are for products that I insist on using the brand name of.

  16. emilie says:

    Every 4-8 weeks I have a trick I do in the kitchen the night before grocery shopping day. I’m a single mom, it’s just me and my daughter, which presents some interesting challenges in not buying too much food. Also, I grew up with my Depression-era-raised grandmother, who believed in having fridge, cupboards, freezer, and extra freezer filled to the gills!

    I do a full inventory of my kitchen. I call this my “empty refrigerator method.” The goal is to operate with stuff in the fridge that is for eating this week, and little else (obviously, condiments, etc. carry over). The first time takes a bit longer, but it is also a nice opportunity to organize things. I make a list of everything I have on hand – brown rice, risotto, pasta, beans, — everything! Freezer too–fish sticks, meat, pizzas. (First time it took me about 20 minutes, now I’m down to 10.)

    I then use this list as I craft my meal list for the week. My stuff usually falls into two categories: stuff I bought on sale, or stuff I have forgotten about. Then as I make my meal plan, I gravitate toward recipes that call for garbanzo beans, or canned roasted red peppers, or whatever. Or I replace what the recipe calls for with what I have. I consider each inventory item and ask myself, Why did I buy a frozen pizza three weeks ago if I wasn’t planning on eating it?

    Obviously, I need fresh things each week or so. But when I take one week a month to use what’s on hand, I have found I have saved on meat, on canned goods, on everything! I also tend to seem to have “rainy day” meals on hand… but living in Florida we rarely have rainy days. So once a week, we try to have a “rainy day” meal to use this supply up. Mac & cheese, frozen things, or just a quick pasta with jar sauce fit the bill well. (With a toddler in the house, these things are aplenty.)

    Each time I do this, I find that I save a huge amount of $ on that week’s grocery trip and also feel like a champ!

  17. Amen to not going to the store hungry! This is the number one budget breaker for me.

    Thanks for the great ideas! I’m going to start using cash from now on. This way I’ll be FORCED to stay within my budget.

  18. Zoie says:

    My Husband and I shop together and tend to leave our shopping cart at the ends of the isle in order to cut down on placing items in the cart, that we do not need. We know what items are down an isle and then go down the isle for that item. We only allow ourselves the things we can carry back to the cart at the end of the isles. This also cuts down on going down isles like chips cookies and soda things we do not need. If one sticks to the outer edges to the store you will find most of the items you need with few trips down the middle for costly items you do not need.

  19. Jack says:

    I agree with all these tips.
    I use cash to pay and only take a certain amount with me so I don’t go over. One thing I think is important is to TAKE A CALCULATOR with you! Keep track of how much you’re spending so you don’t over spend. My 4yr old goes with me when not in school, and we make it fun. We stop at Mcdonald’s for Breakfast first (which I include in the grocery exspense) and he brings a book to read while mommy shops. :}


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